The angel on the farm

THE film based on the early adult life of Danish writer Isak Dinesen, ``Out of Africa,'' is, despite its exotic setting, simply one more in a series of strong-woman-fights-to-save-the-farm stories that have dominated movie screens lately. Meryl Streep's Academy Award nomination for her role follows Sally Field's win last year for ``Places in the Heart.'' And who was Sally Field's competition? Cissy Spacek for her performance in ``The River'' and Jessica Lange for ``Country.'' We don't mean to denigrate these movies, which have given women opportunities to play strong, committed individuals. But we do think that it is interesting to analyze why Hollywood has been comfortable celebrating women's strength in these circumstances, whereas the message from a film like ``Jagged Edge,'' focusing on a lawyer, is of her ultimate vulnerability and of her inability (or unwillingness) to play by the rules of a male-dominated profession.

The farm films show their heroines as having the courage to speak out against males in power, whether philandering husbands, as in ``Out of Africa,'' or cold loan officers, as in ``Places in the Heart.'' The heroines become the focus of hope, hope that the family farm can be made productive, that the family can stay together, that love for the woman and the land will overwhelm the man's yearning for adventure and keep him home.

The image of strong women as protectors and bastions of morality in the home has a long history. The 19th-century Victorians believed women should be ``angels in the house'' -- preserving family values and humanity within a safe and reassuring framework.

Productivity was coming to be defined in terms of the factory, a dehumanizing institution that belched smoke and echoed with the deafening clangs of machinery. A sharp division between public and private spheres was the outcome of this economic shift and the association of women with home as a haven from the workplace.

What, then, can we make of these new films? They suggest that in the wake of the women's movement, the filmmakers do want to show their sympathy for women's claims to equality; they want to portray strong women moving out of traditional roles.

But broad popular appeal depends on reinforcing, as well as questioning, the myths we hold dear. These films also reinforce a traditional idea -- that woman's place is in the home. By setting these films in a rural past with no separation between public and private, the filmmakers have it both ways. They show women both as vital producers and as protectors of home and children.

We might wish to ask why four such movies have been released and been so highly acclaimed at this time. It is a time when we are experiencing an antifeminist backlash and a strong call for a return to traditional family values and a structure that presupposes a traditional role for women in the home. (President Reagan has, for example, proposed elimination of a tax advantage to families in which both husbands and wives work outside the home.)

We cannot, however, simply go back to the good old days of the family farm and cottage industry. The vast majority of women today are part of the paid labor force. Less than 10 percent of American households consist of a husband-provider and unemployed wife.

Our new family structures have raised, for society and for individuals, many new and complex problems, the solutions to which do not lie in the past. Like Westerns, which suggest to men that heroism may lie in shooting and strutting, these films suggest to women that there is no conflict between their self-fulfillment and their role as protectors. Compared with the very real and puzzling personal difficulties today's women face over the conflict between home and job, there may be some appeal to tragedies that are simple and external, such as dust storm, locust, fire, and flood.

If the solution for most of us is not to be found on the family farm, neither can it be achieved by total absorption either into the world of paid labor or into the dependent status of unpaid keeper of the home. Today's women need to help society forge new connections between the public and the private. We need to envision lives in which we can act as these heroines do, uniting our personal values with our energies as workers. But to do that, we can't keep everyone ``down on the farm.''

Pat Sharpe is professor of literature and women's studies and Fran Mascia-Lees is professor of anthropology and women's studies at Simon's Rock of Bard College, Great Barrington, Mass.

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